Denmark Vesey’s Fiery Resistance
by Steven Malik Shelton
In the Western hemisphere, chattel slavery lasted some three centuries and although it remained constant as an institution of bondage and subjugation, there were many instances of upheaval and resistance.
Two of America’s largest planned insurrections were those of Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey.
While Nat Turner’s rebellion resounds throughout America and his spirit and likeness have been immortalized in books, legends and folklore, Denmark Vesey has a less recognizable legacy. His deeds go unheralded on the national landscape. Even his facial features and other physical characteristics (apart from the fact that he was Black) are unknown. It’s as though his spirit for freedom (being so fierce and uncompromising) demanded that a concerted attempt be made by the facilitators of slavery and institutionalized oppression to blot him out of American consciousness.
There are some facts of his life that are known. He was born on the Guinea coast of Africa in the 1760's and reared in (what was then) the Danish Virgin Islands. He was abducted by slavers as a youth and made a cabin boy aboard a slave schooner owned by a white man named Joseph Vesey. In this capacity he was able to travel the Caribbean islands and to traverse the shipping routes that connected the various stations, ports and slave fortresses. This experience broadened his scope and sharpened his already keen powers of observation and deduction. Eventually he was able to purchase his freedom by winning 1,500 dollars from a state lottery.
No doubt young Vesey witnessed countless horrors during his years aboard the slave schooner. And he must have experienced sharp guilt over the part he played as a servant on these slave trafficking excursions. The psychological torment of being a slave forced by the very nature of the institution to be a participant in the slave marketing process is one that, while not as recognized as the physical pains of hard labor, strife and brutality could, nevertheless, be even more excruciating and enduring.
Denmark Vesey, while silently experiencing these horrors, built up a searing flame of barely contained hatred which, like a pressure cooker, built to a fever pitch over the years culminating in the events that led him to produce the largest and most violent planned slave insurrection in American history.
This hatred of slavery as well as its implementers was overwhelming, stronger even than those demonic torments designed to deter even the thought of rebellion or any perceived insolence.
To be sure, it took extraordinary courage and faith to plan a slave insurrection of any measure. And to orchestrate one on the scale that Vesey did, one that came within a hair’s width of success, was earth shattering.
Another interesting aspect of Vesey’s rebellion was that he (until the moment the plot was revealed and his part in it verified) was not considered anything but an obedient fixture in the bleak panorama of slavery, greed, and oppression.
When he purchased his emancipation with his lottery winnings he was considered merely one of a group of Black freedmen that frequented the African Methodist Church and who jockeyed for a semblance of approval and privilege amongst the fringes of 18th Century southern life; And he was probably perceived by many Blacks and Whites as more fortunate than his brethren that still labored under the lash with no end in sight, or even to hope for.
Yet, though unnoticed by the Whites who surrounded him, Vesey’s meager pseudo- slave existence haunted him, and the searing empathy he held in his heart for his enslaved countrymen would not allow him peace or comfort.
It is a testament to the power of his personality that he was able to bond together thousands of Blacks over an area that stretched tens of miles in many directions. There were several dynamics that made this a daunting, admirable, and extremely risky achievement.
First, there was in America a system of reward and appeasement designed to entice Blacks to betray one another especially as it pertained to slave revolts. Any Black revealing the names or location of plotters or participants would usually be rewarded with emancipation as well as provided with cash or some other amenity. Moreover, a mind-set was relentlessly imposed upon Blacks that was designed to divide them along several lines. The old against the young, the men against the women, the lighter complexioned against the darker hued etc., in a Willie Lynch methodology and conditioning process.
Secondly, the punishment for insurrection was traditionally death, usually preceded by hours, days or weeks of some the most ghastly torments ever devised. A few of them were to force hot coals into the victim’s mouth; to be whipped with strips of cowhide which were fashioned not only to rip open the skin but to tear at the raw, exposed flesh underneath; to be chained in a pitch black dungeon for days or weeks without food or water; and to be placed alive in a cauldron of hot water and slowly cooked for as long as 24 hours.
Lastly, Blacks realized that even if their quest for liberation was successful and the progenitors escaped unscathed with their freedom, there would surely be a White backlash of terror and retribution meted out upon those Blacks that were left behind; the innocent just as likely to be punished as the guilty in order to serve as a deterrent to future plans for freedom and insurrection.
Yet the furnace of hatred and contempt that Vesey had for the Whites and their institution of bondage, singed away even these concerns, and he went about his work with a singularity of mind and purpose.
Ironically, the dichotomy that separated Blacks from Whites also compelled the Whites to believe the lies that most Blacks were content with their lot and that the Whites were benevolent and fatherly patrons of Blacks.
In the end, the enslaver (regardless of how much he clings to his delusion) can never be safe from the bloody hand of retribution of the oppressed. For the smile on the face of a slave is very often a mask which hides a murderous and hate fueled rage.
The planning and boldness of Vesey’s insurrection tore at the heart of myths fostered to protect and to under gird the fortress of American slavery; myths that maintained that Blacks were docile, childlike creatures that lacked the ability to plan and the intellect to discern or to devise an elaborate or a concerted effort to attain their liberation.
Beginning in 1821, Vesey began recruiting select men who would serve as his able lieutenants. He chose them paying particular attention to their character as well as their useful status in the community. He also made a point of recruiting those Blacks that were trusted by Whites and who could move about more freely, traversing the dual worlds of White and Black without suspicion. Any Blacks that were fond of alcoholic drinks or that were considered too talkative were excluded.
Vesey chose Red and Rolla Bennett (trusted slaves of Thomas Bennett, governor of South Carolina), Peter Poyas (a skilled ship carpenter), Gullah Jack (feared and respected as a conjurer or sorcerer by Blacks and perceived as a harmless buffoon by Whites), and John Gill (described as intelligent and dependable).
With the help of these men Vesey recruited others whose occupations were carters, draymen, sawyers, porters, stevedores, mechanics, lumber workers and field hands. At least three Blacksmiths were persuaded and they went to work fashioning weapons in the form of swords, daggers, pikes, bayonets and musket balls.
Plans were made to secure horses, and slaves at livery stables were enlisted for this purpose. Slaves that were in position to commandeer their master’s mounts were ordered to do so at the most opportune time. Canoes and boats were to be utilized to move slaves to city areas to buttress the rebellion.
The conspirators had also carefully selected stores and armories where they could obtain additional weapons and explosives to seize and raze the city.
Vesey set July 14 (the second Sunday of the month) for the day of the assault. This was the time when the number of Whites in Charlotte would be drastically reduced due to various summer activities. Sunday was also a day when Blacks had more leisure time and could move about in greater numbers with a minimum of alarm or suspicion from Whites.
Divided into seven companies, at midnight Vesey and his slave army were to strike at several strategic points, with loose units ordered to comb the city thoroughfares killing all White persons they detected and preventing them from gathering in large numbers or warning other Whites.
Not only Whites were to be massacred but also those Blacks that had refused to join his rebellion. Vesey quoted from Luke 11:23, “He that is not with me, is against me.”
He also gave explicit orders that no White person was to be left alive (except for the ship captains who were to be forced to sail the insurrectionists to Haiti) whether man, woman or child. Again he quoted from the Bible for inspiration and justification, “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.” (Joshua 6:21)
On Saturday, May 25th (nearly two months before the planned date of the insurrection) a slave named Peter was approached by a recruit named William Paul in an effort to enlist him into the plot. Upon hearing of the planned revolt, Peter hurried away terrified and relayed the information to his master. William Paul was soon arrested and interrogated at the City Work House for slaves. He initially denied any plot, but through various methods of “coercion” he began to reveal all that he knew. This set up a chain of events that effectively derailed Vesey’s efforts.
Vesey was soon arrested and imprisoned in the Work House dungeon with several of his co-conspirators. He could be heard to admonish them that although all was lost, they must die bravely like men.
During his trial, Vesey acted as his own attorney and reportedly conducted his defense with calm intelligence. He cross examined the witnesses arrayed against him, many of whom were prompted either through punishment or the promise of reward to testify.
At the conclusion of the trial and to know ones surprise, Vesey and most of those thought to be connected to the uprising were convicted. The judge looking down upon him with the same bombast, arrogance and narrow mindedness that had characterized the institution of slavery that Vesey hated, spoke these words:
“Denmark Vesey- the Court on mature consideration, have pronounced you Guilty. You have enjoyed the advantages of able Counsel, and were also heard in your own defense, in which you endeavored with great art and plausibility, to impress a belief of your innocence. After the most patient deliberation, however, the court were not only satisfied of your guilt, but that you were the author, and original instigator of this diabolical plot. Your professed design was to trample on all laws, human and divine; to riot in blood, outrage, rapine and conflagration., and to introduce anarchy and confusion in their most horrid forms. Your life has become, therefore, a just and necessary sacrifice, at the shrine of indignant Justice. It is difficult to imagine what infatuation could have prompted you to attempt an enterprise so wild and visionary.
Early on the morning of Tuesday, July 2, 1822 Vesey and five of his lieutenants were taken from their cells at the slave prison. Several of them were overheard laughing as they were escorted to Ashley Avenue in the heart of Charlotte and near the city’s largely anonymous Potter’s Field Cemetery. There was a large oak tree located here and oral tradition gives this as the spot where Denmark Vesey was hanged. Years later the infamous oak tree was cut down by Whites, perhaps because it symbolized in Vesey an aura of a spirit of resistence that could not be obliterated with oppression or, even, with death. In the early 1970's another oak tree was planted in its place. It is still known by local Blacks as “Vesey’s tree.”
Notes and References:
 “Denmark Vesey’s Revolt,” John Lofton, The Kent State University Press (1964) p. 161
* “Denmark Vesey, The Buried History of America’s Largest Slave Revolt and the Man Who Led It,” David Robertson, Random House, Inc. (1999)